An explanation of the British educational system

sistema educativo britanico
Every country has a different educational system from the others, and although there has been an effort in Europe to standardize it, everything changes when we talk about the United Kingdom. Today I’ll try to explain it, and believe me when I say that even after reading about the subject, I don’t understand it perfectly.

I’ll be using England as the main example, as in Scotland things can be quite different. Within England itself there are lots of variations, so this way I won’t be giving you too much information.

Public and State Schools

The names indicate the opposite of what you might think. In the United Kingdom, public schools are private schools and, as you might guess, the state schools are public schools, subsidized by the British government.

By law, all children between 5 and 16 years old from English have the right to attend a (state) school for free. There are several (many) kinds of schools depending on who manages them:

  • Community schools, managed by the local authority. Not influenced by businesses or religious groups.
  • Foundation schools, with more freedom in the academic curriculum and form of instruction. They have their own teaching methods.
  • Academies, dependent on branches of the government that are unrelated to the local authority.
  • Grammar schools, managed by the city council or an organization. They choose pupils based on their academic abilities – students must pass an exam to attend.
  • Special schools, centres for children over 11 years old with behavioural, social, cognitive, or learning problems.
  • Faith schools, religious schools, of which there can be different kinds. For example, voluntary aided schools, free schools, academies, etc., but associated with a particular religion. They have to follow the national curriculum.
  • Free schools, Free schools are financed by the government, but are not run by the local council. They have more control over how things are done. Free schools can establish their own salaries and conditions for the staff and change the duration of school terms and the school day, and they don’t have to follow the national curriculum. They’re run on a non-profit basis and can be created by groups like charitable organizations, universities, independent schools, community and religious schools, teachers, parents, or businesses.
  • Private schools / independent schools have attendance fees instead of being financed by the government. The students don’t have to follow the national curriculum.

More info:

Within all these kinds of schools, there are two styles of teaching:

  • Grammar schools:  we could call these the very selective schools, where you have to pass tests to get in. They tend to have the highest results on national texts and there are only 164 left in all of England, 69 in Northern Ireland.
  • Comprehensive schools: which 90% of students attend. Without requirements for attendance. The majority of these schools are dedicated to secondary education (11-18 years) and during the last two years they prepare students for vocational school or university.

Class structure / Levels

Classes are roughly ordered according to year of birth. Simply put, students born in August 2001 will be in class with those born before August 2002 (this is more or less how it works). But that’s not all: the classes are also divided into years: 1, 2, 3, etc.… and grouped into curricular levels, or “Key Stages” (KS), in which obligatory subjects are taught.

Year 1: from 5 to 6 years old
Year 2: from 6 to 7

Year 3: from 7 to 8
Year 4: from 8 to 9
Year 5: from 9 to 10
Year 6:  from 10 to 11

Year 7: from 11 to 12
Year 8: from 12 to 13
Year 9: from 13 to 14

Year 10: from 14 to 15
Year 11: from 15 to 16

Year 12: from 16 to 17
Year 13: from 17 to 18

Even more confusingly, these class years are divided into two different groups: into Juniors (4-11 years old) and Seniors (12-18 years old).

Sixth Form

Students between 16 and 19 years old study in Sixth Form School or Sixth Form College. I’ve read all I found but it’s still a bit confusing. Simply put, going through Sixth Form at a school means preparing to go to university, while the colleges prepare you for other kinds of more professional/practical training. During this time, students take A level exams to enter university or professional school/training. This is where they acquire foundational skills in various subjects that they’ve chosen to specialize in.

More info:

To make the organization of school years a little clearer, a student’s “path” would be the following:

  • First School / Primary School (4-11)
  • Grammar / Secondary School / Middle+High School (11-16)
  • Sixth Form / College (16-18)
  • Foundation degree, vocational qualification, or university degree (18-21)
  • Postgraduate: Master/PhD (+21)

More info:

A brief summary of all this is in the following video from Anglophenia (BBC). Then I’ll move onto the certificates…

Certificates and important exams

By age group…

GCSE – General Certificate of Secondary Education

For 16-year-olds: Qualifying exams that are taken after the first 11 years of study. These give students marks for the important subjects (English, Maths, Sciences, Literature, etc.) but other exams like Art, Humanities, and Health and Social Care also exist.

After these tests, students can study for their A levels or Cambridge Pre-U, or another alternative to the A levels, International Baccalaureate. If the pupil wants something more related to professional training, there are the BTECs, Cambridge Technicals, NVQs, or TechBac.

A levels

For 18-year-olds: in Sixth Form, pupils prepare for two years (AS and A2) in order to pass at least three or 4 A level exams to get into university or further study programs. The number can vary, but the average is four tests. There are five kinds of exam (which I won’t go into here), and for each one there’s a catalogue of various subjects to choose from. These subjects include anything from Accounting, Biology, Chemistry, Dance, or Electronics, to German, Music, or Psychology.

In order to qualify for A levels, you must have met the minimum requirements when taking your GSCEs.

It’s a kind of specialization before higher education, whether you’re opting for vocational formation or a university degree. To get into Oxford and Cambridge, you need to get A* marks, which fewer than 10% of students receive.


Vocational Qualifications

In many countries, there are special exams and schools that train students as working professionals. In the United Kingdom, there’s quite a variety of them:


Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) certifications are equivalent to other exams like GCSEs, A-levels or even university qualifications, depending on the course year or subjects take. The levels go from 1 to 8, with Level 4 being equivalent to a regular vocation qualification, and Level 5 or above equal to more advanced training or a university degree.

Examples of BTEC courses include Business and Services; Applied Science; Engineering; IT; Health and Social Care; Hospitality, Travel, and Tourism; and Performing Arts and Music.


The Higher National Certificate and Diploma qualifications are received after vocational training courses that last one or two years. At the end of this period, you get the certificate or certifying diploma.

While a degree helps you acquire knowledge, HNCs and HNDs are designed to give you what’s needed to put this knowledge to practical use in a particular job. They’re well-known qualifications that are highly valued by businessmen. HNCs and HNDs are provided by more than 400 universities and education centres.


National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) are certificates based on performance standards in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland that are achieved through evaluation and training. In Scotland, they’re known as Scottish Vocational Qualification (SVQ).

To get an NVQ, candidates must show they are able to complete their work at the required level. NVQs are based on National Occupational Standards, which describe the performance standards expected for each particular job position. There are five levels of NVQ, starting with Level 1, which concentrates on basic work activities, and going to Level 5, which prepares for upper management.

Depending on the level, you can get a certification in certain abilities in a week, but a full course lasts six months or a year. Everything depends on the “knowledge” you have to demonstrate or prove at the end of each one. Sometimes a NVQ higher than Level 4 can be worth as much as a university degree, but it’s more typical for an NVQ3 to come before a future HNC or Foundation Degree.

Foundation Degree

This diplomas are designed and carried out in association with businesses to give interested people the knowledge and abilities needed for the business or sector. They’re offered by universities in collaboration with schools for higher education. They don’t ask for any prior certification, but work or industry experience may be relevant.

They’re for workers who want to increase their knowledge or people who wish to change job sector. They tend to involve part-time study.


When we talk about higher education, we also have several different options…


After passing the A levels, BTECs, or whatever you’ve picked… then comes university! That’s for three years, and later you can do an optional specialization for two years (a Master’s).

But bear in mind that there are also Apprenticeships and Traineeships focussed on the job market:

  • Apprenticeships: give you the chance to work for an employer, earn a salary, and obtain a degree at the same time. If you still haven’t gotten your university or secondary school degree or a guaranteed full-time job, it’s a good option. An apprenticeship is a real job with training so you can gain experience while you learn and acquire recognized certifications as you improve.
  • Traineeships: offer essential training that prepares you and helps you acquire skills needed to get a job. They offer essential training skills for the job, literacy and arithmetic, and the work experience needed to get a specific apprenticeship. The internship lasts from six weeks to six months – with content adapted to individual needs. They were introduced in 2013 for young people from 16 to 23 years old or for young people with learning difficulties up to 25 years old.


Once you’ve obtained the desired university degree, there’s the choice (today it’s almost an obligation) of getting a Master’s or Doctorate degree, just like in other countries.

There’s so much information and so many kinds of qualifications that I’m not sure if I’ve explained it all in enough detail that it’s clear… so leave a comment!

More info about everything I’ve discussed:

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